Film Review: Grand Central Murder (1942)

Release Date: May, 1942
Directed by: S. Sylvan Simon
Written by: Peter Ruric
Based on: Grand Central Murder by Sue MacVeigh
Music by: David Snell
Cast: Van Heflin, Patricia Dane, Sam Levene, Cecilia Parker, Virginia Grey, Tom Conway

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 73 Minutes

Review:

“Where were you raised? Didn’t anyone ever tell you its bad luck to whistle in a dressing room?” – Mida King, “I’m sorry miss, I… I was raised in a cattle boat, where folks whistle when they feel like it, including the cows!” – Whistling Messenger

Grand Central Murder is an example of a very early noir picture just before the style really started to take shape. It’s also a comedy and because of that, isn’t a straight crime picture but more of a tongue-in-cheek, amusing take on the evolving crime genre.

This sits just between the super popular gangster films that ruled the ’30s and the noir boom that happened in the mid-’40s. It also stars Van Heflin, who might just be the perfect guy to be featured front and center in a film that works as a bridge during this stylistic shift.

While I liked the amusing bits, I think that this would’ve been a much better and actually, really good, crime picture had it played it straight.

What I did like about this movie is that it doesn’t waste time and it moves at a brisk pace getting from point-to-point without trying to pad itself out with a bunch of filler. Even with the comedic moments, the film still flows like a steady river and picks up the right sort of momentum, leading into the climax.

Like a typical noir picture, it has a mystery that comes with some swerves. But I thought that the reveal and the solving of the crime was well done, especially in a time where this picture couldn’t be influenced by all of the other films like it. For the most part, those films didn’t exist yet.

Granted, I can’t necessarily call it an intelligent film but it’s more than competent and it certainly entertained this noir buff for 73 minutes.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: other very early film-noir pictures.

Film Review: Act of Violence (1949)

Release Date: January 22nd, 1949 (New York City)
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
Written by: Collier Young, Robert L. Richards
Music by: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter

Loew’s Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 82 Minutes

Review:

“Sure, I was in the hospital, but I didn’t go crazy. I kept myself sane. You know how? I kept saying to myself: Joe, you’re the only one alive that knows what he did. You’re the one that’s got to find him, Joe. I kept remembering. I kept thinking back to that prison camp. One of them lasted to the morning. By then, you couldn’t tell his voice belonged to a man. He sounded like a dog that got hit by a truck and left him in the street.” – Joe Parkson

The more I watch of Van Heflin, the more he becomes one of my all-time favorite actors. The first few times I saw him, I wasn’t too keen on the roles he had. He always seemed to be a sort of scuzzy character. But since my first few experiences, I’ve seen him play a whole myriad of character types and he just lures me in. Act of Violence is one of my favorite performances I’ve seen of his. And really, I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh here, as well.

In this noir tale, we see ex-POW Frank Enley (Heflin) being honored as a war hero. At home, he is just a young family man just trying to live a normal life. However, a strange character (Ryan) starts showing up and pursuing him. The mysterious man even tries to murder Enley while he is fishing on a lake. Enley gets wind of something awry and is pretty sure he’s in trouble. A car starts stalking Enley and his wife (Leigh) by parking in front of their house. As the tale progresses, we learn that there is something dark that Enley is hiding and maybe this mysterious stranger isn’t actually the bad guy.

This is a simple and straightforward noir without a lot of extra twists and turns. The story has some layers to it but not so much that it is difficult to recall all the details as more present themselves. Some classic noir pictures got bogged down in swerves and overly elaborate details, Act of Violence is actually refreshing in that it does not.

Ultimately, this is a film about a cowardly man redeeming himself through a last act of heroism. You think its a basic revenge story but it isn’t, it’s deeper and more genuine than that.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan were great opposites in this and both men also had great exchanges with Janet Leigh. The acting is very good for all the main parties involved.

Act of Violence is a better movie than I expected it to be. The scene on the lake was suspenseful and actually pretty breathtaking from a visual standpoint. It is a good mixture of nice cinematography, a good story and talented actors.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Release Date: July 24th, 1946 (New York City)
Directed by: Lewis Milestone, Byron Haskin (uncredited), Hal B. Wallis (uncredited)
Written by: Robert Rossen, Robert Riskin (uncredited)
Based on: Love Lies Bleeding by John Patrick
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas

Hal Wallis Productions, Paramount Pictures, 116 Minutes

Review:

“I missed a bus once and I was lucky. I wanted to see if I could be lucky twice.” – Toni Marachek

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a damn fine film with a weird title. I mean, the title makes sense but Love Lies Bleeding, the title of the book this was based on, sounds more fitting. But maybe it was too harsh for the time and conjured up ideas of horror.

The film stars Barbara Stanwyck at the height of her fame and she made no bones about her status while on set with the other actors. She didn’t want anyone trying to upstage her performance and she had control over how she was lit and captured on film. She even took issue with Van Heflin’s coin trick, which he learned for the film in an effort to make his gambler character more authentic. Regardless of her diva attitude, Stanwyck still gave an incredible performance and Van Heflin was there to match her.

This film is also the debut of Kirk Douglas and only the second film for Lizabeth Scott, an incredibly beautiful actress with serious chops.

Like most film-noir pictures, this one has a plot with a lot of layers to it and it all just sort of develops when it is good and ready. It’s a movie that takes its time but it isn’t boring by any means. In fact, the movie is engaging and captivating.

The plot summary on IMDb reads, “A ruthless, domineering woman is married to an alcoholic D.A., her childhood companion and the only living witness to her murder of her rich aunt seventeen years earlier.” However, it is so much more than that and the summary is really just sort of a framework.

Most of the stuff I have seen Van Heflin in, he’s played either a really despicable character or a carefree Don Juan, usually both at the same time. This is the first time I can recall, where he plays a character that is mostly a good guy. He makes a few selfish mistakes, here and there, but in the end, his moral compass wins out. This was also his most complex character that I have seen and it is a role where his performance really impressed me.

Barbara Stanwyck was perfect as a ruthless and cold business shark. Really, she was the matriarch of her town. Her husband, played by Kirk Douglas, was the town’s district attorney but unlike his normal macho roles, in this he is a drunken pushover. Their chemistry as a married couple full of bitterness towards one another was well played. The tension between them felt real.

Lizabeth Scott was the scene stealer, even though she didn’t have as much screen time as the other three stars. She was charming and despite her checkered legal past, felt like the only real embodiment of innocence in the picture.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this. It caught me by surprise and really impressed me. Every actor was truly on their A-game, especially the newcomers Douglas and Scott, who both were able to hang with the more experienced Stanwyck and Heflin.

This doesn’t fall under my favorite kind of noir, which are the private dick stories, but it is a solid melodrama with the right amount of twists and turns to keep it moving briskly in a way that keeps one engaged.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Possessed (1947)

Also known as: The Secret (working title)
Release Date: July 26th, 1947
Directed by: Curtis Bernhardt
Written by: Silvia Richards, Ranald MacDougall, Rita Weiman
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, Geraldine Brooks

Warner Bros., 108 Minutes

Review:

“‘I love you’ is such an inadequate way of saying I love you. It doesn’t quite describe how much it hurts sometimes.” – Louise

Joan Crawford was in two different movies with the title Possessed. There was a 1931 picture with Clark Gable and then there was this 1947 film where Crawford put in a performance so damn good that she probably should have won the Oscar.

This film also starred Van Heflin, who – in everything I’ve seen him in – is a sort of reverse femme fatale, as he is a seducer of women in a film era where the woman was usually a conniving and self-absorbed symbol of sexual power. However, unlike his role in 1951’s The Prowler, Van Heflin is not a despicable character here. He is actually a mostly decent guy that just seems to woo the women in the picture, unfortunately to his detriment.

Joan Crawford also isn’t the typical femme fatale in this movie. She isn’t necessarily conniving or evil, she has a severe mental illness, even if the film sort of dances around that a bit to keep an air of mystery. Her actions and the bad things that she does are an effect of her obsession over Heflin’s character. She’s a person that needs help but doesn’t actually get it until after tragedy.

While this displays a lot of the noir tropes, it uses that style to tell a very different story, at least from what I’ve seen in the genre. It is a film about obsession and paranoia and what that can do to a nice person.

The actions of Joan Crawford’s character may have been a bit more puzzling and mysterious to the filmgoing audiences of the 1940s but now that understanding mental illness has come a long way since Possessed was released, I think modern audiences may view this film differently and have a sort of soft spot for Crawford and her struggles.

Superbly acted, across the board, 1947’s Possessed is one of the best Joan Crawford pictures that I’ve seen and it boasts a tremendous performance from her.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: The Prowler (1951)

Release Date: May 25th, 1951
Directed by: Joseph Losey
Written by: Dalton Trumbo (uncredited), Hugo Butler (a front for Trumbo), Robert Thoeren, Hans Wilhelm
Music by: Lyn Murray
Cast: Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes

Horizon Pictures, United Artists, 92 Minutes

Review:

“I didn’t do it, Susan. I’ll swear that by the only thing I ever really loved and that’s you.” – Webb Garwood

The Prowler is a film-noir with a strange twist, the femme fatale isn’t femme at all, it’s actually a man and a jerk cop to be exact.

In this picture, a woman calls the police because she notices a peeping tom outside her window. The cops show up and one of them is immediately infatuated with the woman, who just happens to be married to a rich radio personality that is never home at night because he has a show to do. The cop starts showing up every night and seduces the woman into falling in love with him. All the while, the cop is planning to murder the woman’s husband, marry her and get the money from the dead man’s insurance policy.

This is typical noir type stuff but the evil puppet master is not a woman this time. Maybe one could argue that this was the first socially progressive film-noir. It didn’t seem to be playing off of the fear that women having power over men would lead to evil. I’m not sure if the twist was intentional or if the writers didn’t really put that much thought into it. Still, it provides a unique story nonetheless.

Ultimately, the film is incredibly effective. For one, it is really unpredictable and goes in unforeseeable directions. Even if you are thinking the worst, it swerves in ways that are still shocking. It’s a pretty nasty film for what it is. It has a certain grit that just feels dirty, even for a film-noir.

The camerawork is quite stellar and the outdoor expanse in the final act of the film is well captured and presented. The overall production design and interior sets are equally impressive. The house of the woman, where the bulk of this picture takes place in the first half, is both attractive and alluring while also being cold and haunting. It is like an opulently dressed void that reflects luxury and emptiness.

The sexual misconduct of the main characters isn’t anything new in a film-noir but somehow the actors are able to make it feel dirtier than what the audience is used to. You don’t immediately see the cop as a figure of evil but there is still an underlying sinister edge to his words and actions. Van Heflin is just as much a macho seducer as he is a conniving creeper.

There are a lot of interesting layers to the picture, most of them dark. But it really stands out amongst a sea of film-noir. I’m not saying it is one of the best pictures in the genre but it is a different experience than what one would expect and it did catch me by surprise.

Rating: 8/10